We are all immigrants, everyone of us
Last week I gave a talk at LifeVentures surveying immigrant novels and memoirs—not to draw attention to the present political situation but to help my audience better understand what it means to be a newcomer in a foreign land. All of us at one time had an immigrant in our background. We all came to America from some place else.
For any of you who don’t know, LifeVentures is an organization aiming to enrich the lives of people my age through a weekly day-long event consisting of lectures, lunch, entertainment and lots of socializing. I did my thing in the “What have you read lately?” section. Join us if you are in the area.
I gave that lecture to acquaint my audience with what newcomers to any land experience as viewed through the eyes of novelists and memoirists. My interest is personal: My parents were immigrants from Russia in 1923 when they joined about 20,000 other Mennonites to flee the turmoil in their homeland for Canada.
Immigrants depicted in these books came to America for a better life and the freedom to choose their own destiny. They come in search of the American dream –streets paved with gold, money growing on trees, a chicken stewing in every pot, and clean underwear every morning.
They left behind relatives and friends, sometimes never to lay eyes on them again. My mother never saw her parents again after leaving Russia with my father and two older sisters. She saw only one of ten siblings left behind again -- after a separation of 53 years.
These immigrants left behind church, community, nation and a way of life they were familiar and comfortable with.
They left behind prejudice and class consciousness, sometimes to find it sneaked in with them to the new land, hiding in inner baggage. They left behind criminal backgrounds and a disreputable reputation. However, family secrets didn’t always stay secret.
They left behind war, revolution and political upheavals. They also left behind the soul-wearying poverty of the Old Country, to be faced with it again during times of drought, prairie fires, and grasshopper plagues.
Many brought with little in terms of actual artifacts to help in this new beginning – many were quite poor, and, in the case of my parents, came to Canada on borrowed money they promised to repay. It took them about ten years.
However, they brought with them what couldn’t be packed into a suitcase or trunk: dreams and hopes, values and customs, religious belief and faith, especially the courage and willingness to start over.
In this new land they faced the big hurdle of communicating in a new language and handling new currency. New weather patterns and a different terrain challenged them. Change faced them every time they tackled a new task, whether it was plowing the land or baking bread. Isolation, especially for the women, was a huge barrier.
In this new country they often lacked spiritual and religious leaders. No minister was available to baptize a new infant and marry a young couple.
Fears were as abundant as houseflies: What if their children became too Americanized? Some of the characters in the novels grew anxious about losing their former identity or social role, for all were strangely on the same footing and only time and new experiences would create new social levels.
I was born in Canada, yet in a sense I am an immigrant in another way. I feel it every day. In era of fast change, we are all immigrants. Change is coming at a fast rate, especially technologically, politically, socially, morally and theologically. People move, change professions, change spouses, change allegiance to value systems, which requires us to make sense and order out of each change.
Sometimes several times a day I have to say: "I don't understand what's going on when you use that app," or "This file won't open for me. I am stumped."
Years ago at an English conference, literary critic Alfred Kazin, himself an immigrant, told the large audience of English teachers something I never forgot: “Language is the salvation of the immigrant child who must reorder his or her existence by means from within. One writes to make a home for oneself on paper – to find a place, a ledge. . . .”
The immigrant, or refugee, has only language by which to pass on to children values and truths, he said. The past is gone. Heirlooms and artifacts are few. Physical furnishings and clothing have been left behind. The territory is new.
Children need their ancestors who came from another country, another time, to navigate change and identify what is important. They need us, the older generation, the ones who once lived in another era without cell phones, air travel, email, Facebook, Twitters, blogs, and much more to help them sort through changes and challenges in this brave new world.